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Thursday, 15 March 2012
Page: 3168


Mrs GASH (Gilmore) (11:13): The extent to which video games influence the development of young minds is open to debate. Indeed, it is a complex issue. Young minds are influenced by a large variety of factors. Most cope very well and grow up well adjusted—some do not. Some are easily influenced by external stimuli, while most can and do make rational and responsible decisions despite potentially adverse influences. Some reach levels of maturity earlier than others while some never arrive. These are the realities of life. The key is how the family unit is supervised and how responsibilities are distributed.

The Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Amendment (R 18+ Computer Games) Bill 2012 to introduce an R18+ category for video games simply provides another tool to assist responsible parents. I say 'responsible' because the only people who can enforce this classification are the parents. Based on previous experience it is unrealistic to expect that this can be enforced in any meaningful way by governments. We went through the issue of alcopops. The government imposed a heavy tax premium on premixed alcoholic drinks. The result was that we just shifted the problem. The same can be said about selling tobacco to minors. It has been written into law forever yet you walk down the street and you see groups of 14-year-olds puffing away without a care in the world. No one challenges them. It has become an accepted fact of life. Every now and then you hear about a prosecution for illegal sales to a minor, but in the main it is safe to say it has very little impact. Sadly, some parents even condone the behaviour by allowing children almost free will. The fact remains that despite the millions of dollars sunk into protecting and barricading minors from smoking many just do and society is accepting the fact.

Video games are in the same mould. I think by attaching a prescriptive restriction to a product you only make it more tempting. We already have the MA15+ classification applied and that means games are restricted to those over 15. If you are under 15 you cannot legally access the material or play the game without being accompanied by a legal guardian. Does that stop the proliferation of these games? Has the classification protected sensitive young minds? I think not because the ones more likely to be attracted are those whose curiosity has been whetted—the very type of mind the classification seeks to protect.

For what it is worth I found this on Wikipedia. The Entertainment Software Association states that 20 per cent of video game players are boys under the age of 17 and 26 per cent are over 50 regardless of gender so that the average game player is 37. This has been ascribed to a 2009 fact sheet published by the Entertainment Software Association in America. I went to their website and there it was. In a survey of 1,102 teenagers aged 12 to 17, 97 per cent of them said they play video games. Moreover half the survey respondents said they had played a video game in the last day. Three-quarters of parents who were surveyed said that they checked the ratings on their children's games. However, half the boys who were asked about their favourite game listed a game with an M or AO rating as their favourite content and just 14 per cent of girls. It is the temptation of the forbidden which is the drawcard and the adults only rating helps to act as the pointer.

The entry goes on to say that the adult demographic is the fastest growing segment of the American video games market. Thirty-two per cent of adults are playing video games, although critics have suggested that such statistics are often used to deflect from the fact that almost all American children are exposed to video games. That is the American experience and, given our love affair with American culture, I would say that statistics in Australia are not too wide off the same mark.

The point I am trying to make is that, at the end of the day, with the way things are it is not going to matter very much whether an R18+ rating is applied or not. The only benefit I see in this bill is that it introduces a uniform classification to that applied to film and television and as a result it is easier to understand. At least in standardising the approach it may help to minimise confusion. To an extent, this classification debate is largely academic. What is pertinent are two questions: will this tool be used and how will it be used? I do not have that answer but when I was reading up on the subject I came across a little article on a games blog site written by Mark Serrels. The website is kotaku.com.au. Published in October last year the article talks about the classification review and the panel chair, Professor Terry Flew. It is important to understand what his views are. The article says:

'One of the things we were aware of from the outset taking on the inquiry,'

says Professor Flew—

'was that there was considerable dissatisfaction with the R18 classification issue—that this issue had been on the agenda for over a decade and, as you may well be aware, gamers were a very important group in making submissions to this enquiry. So we're certainly aware of the importance of the issue.'

According to Professor Flew:

R18+ was an issue that really exemplified and exposed the difficulties of using 20 year old legislation to navigate a post-internet age.

In other words, the person who will be administering the new arrangement believes it is already redundant. The article goes on:

'Games have an interesting status in terms of the Classification Scheme in two respects,' … 'Firstly, the assumption that computer games were considered to be more akin to films and broadcasting proved to be historically significant—you have to remember that decisions were being made in what was largely a pre-internet era.

'Secondly there was a range of what some sociologists and others call 'moral panics', particularly with regards to the interactive nature of games. There was the idea that games impacted on individual behaviour,' …

'This was all, in a sense, amateur psychology—before anyone was playing the kind of games with which we would eventually become familiar. But there was a sort pre-emptive set of assumptions made about the impact of interactivity that continued to resonate through the decisions being made about video game classification.'

This bill is less to do with any real attempt at addressing the real issues than about being seen to be doing something—anything. From where I stand right now I can safely say that this bill may not help much but it will not hurt much either. Is this regulation made for the pure sake of it and nothing else, or will it achieve something?

The essence of what Professor Flew is saying about this type of legislation is that it should be able to meet the demands of an ever-fluid environment. What may have seemed appropriate 10 years ago is anachronism today. Earlier, I mentioned adolescents smoking and drinking. It is safe to say that the best outcome of legislation prohibiting the sale of tobacco and alcohol to minors is that it helped to contain the incidence of early experimentation.

Both tobacco and alcohol are addictive substances to those who are vulnerable to addiction and have addictive traits. The same can be said about almost anything in society. I well remember the parental debates in the 1950s and 1960s about the addictive nature of television. Most of us survived. The legitimisation of the pornography industry in the 1970s and the 1980s was a similar phenomenon. Did we survive that? It seems that we did, except perhaps for a very small slice of the population who are prone to addiction.

There is no doubt that upwards of 80 per cent of the population supports the introduction of an R18+ category, so the bill is a no-brainer. We live in an age in which our children are more computer savvy than we are. The computer age has delivered a rapid expansion of knowledge and access at a speed that is generally beyond the comprehension of many adults and beyond their ability to adapt to. And it cannot be contained. Yet it forms a significant part of everyday life. We cannot escape it. That is where the youth of today have it over us. I would ask any parent this question: do you really know what your children are getting up to? And, if you do not, do you trust them to do the right thing by you?

We recognise the contribution of the game development industry to the Australian economy and also note that more than 88 per cent of Australian households own a device for playing computer games. The Australian gaming industry is forecast to grow at a rate of about 10 per cent a year, with forecasts predicting that it will reach $2.5 billion annually by 2015. Australia has 25 major game development studios which export over $120 million worth of products a year. Australia is the only Western country that does not have an R18+ classification for games. The UK, EU member countries, the United States and New Zealand all have adult classifications for computer games. In the interests of conformity on the world stage, adopting a universally recognised system of measurement would be beneficial.

This bill is really about self-regulating censorship of video games. There is no doubt that it is intended for parents. As much as we approach this with the best of intentions, we cannot guarantee that those who need it most will use it. The irony is that responsible and well-intentioned adults already monitor the activities of their children. There are many children out there who are already accessing MA15+ games, some with the blessing of their parents. Others are exploiting the ignorance or apathy of their parents. It is specifically that style of parenting that should be targeted. But will this legislation achieve that?

As I said earlier, is there any point to this legislation but housekeeping? I do not oppose the bill. My concern is the proliferation of these games and their ability to desensitise some children to violence and sexuality. What needs to be emphasised is that this R18+ classification is primarily for parental control purposes. In recognising these games, we do not want to keep the impression that they are somehow government approved. This legislation alone will not compel parents towards more responsible parenting. Parents who have a cavalier attitude towards their children viewing inappropriate material have to be engaged in some other way. Perhaps, by focusing on regulating the industry, we may be distracting ourselves from the main agenda. Perhaps that is why there is a growing move to willingly shift personal responsibility away from the individual and onto the government. Parents still have an obligation to decide what is okay for their children. The role of government is surely to help parents in that process but not to take it over.

In conclusion, who should be the censor? Should it be the government or should it be the parent? I would like to recognise and acknowledge Jessica Cowan from Kiama, who is here on work experience and who has had input into this speech.